The 20th anniversary celebration of Tokyo DisneySea is on the near horizon. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful of all Disney theme parks I have ever had the privilege to work at and visit. Because of this momentous occasion, I thought the perfect person to reach out to would be the Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) Lead Art Director for my favorite port of call, Arabian Coast, one of seven themed ports of call (lands) located inside Tokyo DisneySea. I have been wanting to learn more about the inspiration that led to the design of this beautiful land and knew that I needed to speak to none other than WDI alumnus, Larry Nikolai.
With a career at WDI spanning 28 years, I was excited to talk to Larry about many of his other projects as well, like “Ariel’s Undersea Adventure” at Disney California Adventure Park, Tokyo Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare,” his work as a Disney Gallery Artist, and the merchandise collectibles he designed for the Parks like the Main Street Electrical Parade Collectibles from 1996.
I know where I want to end my blog, but where to begin? My initial interview with Larry led me down a path craving for many more questions to be answered. Larry graciously answered another round of questions about a month after our initial interview. What I’ve come to realize is that although I knew Nikolai was an Imagineer who worked on many projects, (all of which were during my years of working for Disney and the Oriental Land Company (O.L.C.)), what I understood after my interview was how truly little I did know about ALL of his projects. I yearned for a better understanding so that I could, in turn, introduce or reintroduce him to you. You may think you know Imagineer alumnus Larry Nikolai, but I’m not so sure you truly do, yet. My hope over the next few weeks, as I continue to write my blog about Larry and his many contributions to the Walt Disney Company and its theme parks around the world, is that both you and I will have a better understanding of his many talents.
Ah yes, I must not forget, where to begin? Well, I do believe at the beginning is almost always the best place, so we’ll start there.
It All Started When He Was Two Years Old
Larry Nikolai was born in Kansas City, Missouri and moved to California in 1956 when he was just two years old. It would be that very same year his parents would take him to Disneyland. Larry explained to me the impact visiting the park had on him.
L: When my family moved to California from Kansas City in 1956, we visited Disneyland the first year we were here. After that it became an annual event, and I grew up with the park.
L: I was always fascinated with the attractions and in later years I made my own crude versions in my garage and backyard.
C: Can you tell me more about that?
L: I have always felt compelled to make dimensional objects with my own two hands- my early visits to Disneyland inspired me to want to have some of the magic in my own backyard and garage, so I had to create it myself!
C: What were some of the attractions you built and out of what materials?
L: I made some small Jungle Cruise elephants at first and graduated to very crude Lincoln figures after seeing the show when it first opened at Disneyland (1965). When Pirates came along (1967), I had to make my own walk-through version with a few figures and lighting effects. Everything I built was of the crudest materials- scrap wood, cardboard, wooden produce crates, paper mâché, plaster, used clothing and some homemade vacuum-formed plastic faces. I also made a number of Tiki birds with string-puppeted mouths.
C: Do you have any photos you could share?
L: I am WAY too embarrassed to show any photos of those very crude early creations!
Although Larry was too embarrassed to show me any photos of his childhood creations, he did let me know that his parents and family were all very supportive of him, sitting through many “garage-based Lincoln shows.” There were apparently many shows as Larry would continue to work on his Lincoln, improving his version overtime. Nikolai’s Pirates of the Caribbean however, as Larry states, “lasted just a season and a few viewings.”
C:Were you always an artist? Even as a young child?
L: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or creating something. My favorite first cartoon character was Popeye, so he is the first thing that I drew. I never really cared for coloring books because I wanted to make the pictures myself, and when we made cards for Mother’s or Father’s Day in school I used to put characters in them. And I’ve always had a desire to paint, even if I didn’t know how to properly use the materials. I once painted a portrait of a sea captain using tubed watercolor paints straight out of the tubes on canvas. I treated them like oil paints. It paid off in the end, though- I entered the painting in a junior art show at a local shopping center and won second prize.
C: I had read that you are both a classically trained fine artist and animation designer. Where did you obtain your training?
L: I took art classes in high school, but to be honest I didn’t pay much attention to them as at the time I was more interested in theater and film making. After high school I attended California State University at Northridge where I concentrated more on my art and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art 2-D painting. When I say I’m a classically trained artist I mean that I went through the classic process of life drawing and learning the various mediums and how to properly use them. I also took the required art history courses and available 3-D design classes to round out my education.
“I OWE EVERYTHING TO THIS MAN”
C: How did you get into theme park attraction design?
L: I was working in the Merchandise Department at Six Flags Magic Mountain during and right after college, and one day it just struck me that- because I loved Disneyland since I could remember- it made sense to bring my art and Disney together for my career. I applied at WED (Walter Elias Disney Enterprises, now Walt Disney Imagineering) but did not have enough experience to get hired there at the time. I stayed at Magic Mountain and a couple of years later I met David Gengenbach, an ex-Disney executive who was also working there.
David Gengenbach worked for the Walt Disney Company as both a project engineer, project manager, and later the vice president of Walt Disney’s WED Enterprises. He oversaw many of the Magic Kingdom’s attractions at Walt Disney World including Space Mountain, the Mark III and Mark IV monorail systems, and the Carousel of Progress. After twelve years with the Walt Disney Company, David left Disney to work for Six Flags Corporation as Manager of Corporate Engineering.
L: He saw a little raccoon sculpture I had done and said that the company was planning to do a dark ride at the Atlanta Park, and that I could join the team if it was approved. I owe everything to this man and mentor who took a chance on me, because the ride “Monster Plantation“ was approved and suddenly I became a professional artist working through the Six Flags Engineering department on a real theme park attraction.
L: On that project (Monster Plantation) I worked with some very talented ex-Disney (and non-ex-Disney) folks, and with their help I ended up working in the theme park, movies, publishing, and cartoon animation industries for the next 12 years before finally being hired at Imagineering.
Almost an Imagineer…But First…One More Question
C: Please tell me a little bit more about the 12 years before finally becoming an Imagineer with the Walt Disney Company. Films you worked on, cartoon animation, and theme parks.
L: The 12 years includes a couple of years still at Magic Mountain before I met Dave Gengenbach and was brought onto the Monster Plantation project.
After Monster Plantation it turns out that Six Flags no longer needed me, so I made the move over to the company that produced all of Monster Plantation’s animatronic figures, AVG Productions. I mostly worked on shows that fulfilled the pizza restaurant craze of the 1980s. I also worked on a show for Six Flags’ Movieland Wax Museum, “The Black Box.” While at AVG I met and worked with many Disney alumni, including Rolly Crump and “Big Al” Bertino.
Shortly after this, my mentor Dave Gengenbach was hired as president of Advanced Animations in Connecticut, and he invited me and some other AVG colleagues to join him there. I moved my family to the East Coast, where we thought we would be for at least 5 years. We did a number of conceptual proposals and some small to mid-size shows for the mostly local eastern states, including a chance for me to finally sculpt a real Abraham Lincoln animatronic figure for a museum in Gettysburg.
Nikolai Meets Lincoln
In 1965, at 11 years old, Nikolai became instantly fascinated with Abraham Lincoln when he saw the 16th President of the United States stand on Disneyland’s Lincoln Theater stage in “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” Just as Walt Disney was fascinated with the beloved president at a young age, so was Larry Nikolai, who would go on to study Lincoln’s life.
The opportunity to finally sculpt the head of Abraham Lincoln must have been exhilarating for Nikolai. The many childhood attempts of creating Lincoln in his garage would finally pay off. Larry would sculpt the head while another sculptor created the body for the animatronic figure who would deliver the Gettysburg Address at the Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg.
Larry personally owns copies of the famous Abraham Lincoln life mask and hands that were created by Leonard W. Volk, Chicago sculptor, on March 31, 1860. Volk created the mold prior to Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. It involved a process that encased Lincoln’s face and ears in plaster. The plaster was left on his face for about an hour to dry and set and was then carefully removed from Lincoln’s face. A process Lincoln is reported to have said was, “anything but agreeable.” It would be this mold that would become the reference for artists who would create busts and statues of Lincoln including Imagineer Blaine Gibson who would also use the Volk mask for Walt Disney’s audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln. Nikolai explained that the Volk mask that both Blaine and he used as reference for Lincoln were invaluable as it provided them both with the measurements they would need to bring Lincoln to life.
Returning to California…Why So Soon?
L: A Warner Communications Company (the parent company of Advanced Animations), fell on hard economic times and they cancelled our projects and laid us off after only one year. Rather than look for work locally or start commuting to New York City I moved my family back to Los Angeles, the true hub of the entertainment industry.
After returning to LA, I was unexpectedly hired into the world of Saturday morning cartoon animation at Ruby Spears Productions. Ken Spears and Joe Ruby were the creators of Scooby Doo during their years at Hanna Barbera before leaving to start their own studio. I had never worked in 2-D or cartoon animation before, and I was lucky to be around some amazing artists who taught me the business. I was initially hired as a maquette sculptor, but I ended up transitioning and was lucky to have five years of working around some amazing professionals in the industry where I got the solid practice I really needed at drawing both background scenes and animated characters. I also did character and show concept work between seasons when new series ideas were being pitched to the networks.
Also at that time my network of friends and associates had grown considerably, and I did many freelance jobs: magazine illustration, film and television character design, collectible merchandise concepts, puppets and costumed character design for both Disney, and Universal Studios- among many other opportunities. I worked on a couple of “Nightmare on Elm Street” films, and I even got to work with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark on her first movie. They were busy years full of good practice in many fields.
All of this led up to 1990, when I was finally hired at WDI.
If you’ve visited a Disney theme park, then you’ve most likely seen the detailed artistry of the talented scenic artist John Rayburn. But who is John Rayburn and how was he able to paint some of the most iconic and beloved attractions and parade floats? From Splash Mountain, to Abraham Lincoln’s hands, to the very popular Disneyland holiday overlays at both the Haunted Mansion and “it’s a small world,” it all came about with a bit of luck, a lot of talent, and the “Baroque Hoedown.”
I first met John when I started at Disneyland as a float driver in the Main Street Electrical Parade back in 1992. John’s long career with the Mouse started 12 years prior in 1980 when he was cast as a performer in the same nighttime classic parade. An amazing and talented performer with a seemingly unending amount of energy, John would continue to perform and entertain guests in various roles over the years until his final parade performance in the Christmas Fantasy Parade in 1998.
It was fun talking with John about his 18 years with Disneyland’s Parade Department and to reminisce about the time we were in the same unit for the “Cruisin’ the Kingdom Parade.” We had some good times during that parade, just don’t get him started on “Light Magic,” which John claims to still have vivid nightmares about. I’ll definitely have to save that story for another time. For today’s blog post, I want to share John Rayburn’s talent as an artist that began when he picked up a paint brush at the age of six.
It Was a Game Changer
John Rayburn is a self-taught artist and has been painting nearly his whole life. At the age of 12 years old, he was painting models so expertly that the Military Shop, a local model hobby shop, asked him to paint their display models. He was too young to work for them, so instead, he was paid in merchandise. Being able to choose whatever he wanted from the store, as payment, was a deal John gladly accepted.
It was at this hobby shop in Lakewood, California where he met an employee named Jim Murphy. John likes to make the objects he paints look real and credits Jim with his first breakthrough into doing just that. John told me that the painting techniques Jim taught him, like which colors to look at for shading, were a game changer that would inevitably end up giving him a career.
Art and the Disneyland Connection
In the late 1970’s, John’s older sister worked in the Parade Department. He said some of her friends from the parades would come over to the house and one of those friends was a guy named Richard Ferrin. John told me that Richard would always make a point to look at John’s models when he came over. At that time, Richard was not only a ride design Imagineer for the Walt Disney Company, he also moonlit as a performer in the Main Street Electrical Parade.
John reconnected with Richard Ferrin in 1980, when John was finally old enough to work as a parade performer at Disneyland. Richard let John know that he was leaving Imagineering to start his own company with his friend Rick Bastrup called R&R Creative Amusement Designs, Inc. (R&R). As a ride engineer, Richard explained to John that he would need people to build architectural study models and asked John if he’d be interested in creating and painting the models. John jumped at the chance and started to work for R&R in Anaheim, California.
After approval of one of John’s completed architectural model builds and paint samples for a job, John shared with me a conversation he had with Richard. It was a brief conversation that would further propel John on his career path:
Richard: “What if you did that a bit bigger?”
John: “What do you mean?”
Richard: “You’ve already done the paint finish that we wanted, it’s approved, and now it needs to be done on the job site. Why can’t you paint it bigger? Instead of using a small brush (like the ones used on models) get bigger ones. Instead of a small air brush, get a larger one.”
It was not an outrageous suggestion, but it would take Richard in that moment to illuminate John’s mind to the possibility of taking on a new endeavor and hone new full-scale artistry skills. From that moment, John’s life as a model builder and painter would forever change, he was now a full-scale scenic artist.
Living Close to the Castle Has Its Advantages
Richard started to send John on various job sites where he would meet folks from Disney who would end up pulling him in on various projects. Plus, folks from Disney knew Richard from Imagineering and would ask if he knew anyone local that can paint finishes fast and Richard would always recommend John as he could fix and match paint faster than anyone, plus he was a local and could get to the park faster than someone from Los Angeles. That’s how, as John says he, “got the in” at Disneyland.
At first Disney would use John to produce quick paint finishes, as well as paint repairs and paint blending for attractions including, Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, and the Jungle Cruise.
You May Get Wet at This “Laughing Place”
Paint repairing on existing attractions to perfection undoubtedly proved to Disney that John was up for his first big job at Disneyland. For this project, John was assigned to scenic paint a new attraction, one that would be billed by Disney as the “Tallest, fastest, thrillingest attraction this side of Star Tours,” and that of course is none other than Splash Mountain, based on Disney’s 1946 film, “Song of the South.”
John, along with an estimated 10 to 12 other scenic artists, age and grain artists and as John said, “a ton of general painters,” all contributed to the painting of the exterior and interior parts of the mountain. For any scenic elements that were added to the attraction after it opened, however, John became the sole scenic artist.
Splash Mountain would open the summer of 1989, after a few months of delays, but in the minds of many guests, it was certainly an attraction that was well worth the wait.
The Work Keeps Coming
John would continue to work on several more projects for Disneyland throughout the years, including painting the brand new Mickey’s Toontown, which opened to guests on January 24, 1993. John was also made the sole scenic artist the year after it opened, tasked with maintaining the land’s vivid hues as well as painting any and all upgrades.
1993Toontown Photos Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
AND…ACTION…CUT…CUT…MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN!
By 2001, John was a proven scenic artist. So much so that he was assigned as a scenic artist for the brand new, yet to open, Disney California Adventure Park. John would work on the initial paint for the Park all the way up until the February 8, 2001, opening date. He was also the only scenic artist approved to be in the Park the full day prior to opening, as he was tasked specifically by Chris Runco, Concept Designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, to touch up paint at surrounding restaurants and the iconic Grizzly Mountain.
John shared with me about an incident that I had all but forgotten until he brought it up, which I thought was quite humorous.
By 2001, I was now working mostly in the TV Productions/Broadcast Services Department at the Disneyland Resort and was working on a commercial film shoot for the new Disney theme park. We were supposed to film Grizzly River Rapids, but we couldn’t get a clean shot because there was a man painting on the mountain. Turns out, that man was John.
John was given a mandate from Imagineering that he had full run of the entire park for 24 hours, allowing John to scan the park for needed touch ups. He had until 8AM on opening day February 8th , to complete the job. What John thought would be a relaxing day of just him and his paint brush, turned into something quite different.
John told me, “I was doing a lot of touch up work on Grizzly for Chris (Runco) and I caused a big problem. There were about 300 people, all over the mountain. They were going to film a commercial but failed to ask Imagineering if they could have permission to do it. Runco’s answer was no, they couldn’t have permission because little old me needed to do a bunch of paint in the waterways. The film crew was furious with me! They had to remove their cameras and proceeded to stare at me for an hour and a half until I was finished.”
We were both able to laugh at it now, and it was certainly a good thing the film crew waited, not that we had a choice, but because of John’s extra touch of paint on Grizzly Peak mountain and it’s River Run waterways, it made for even more gorgeous scenery, not only for the crew to film, but for the guests who would be introduced to the park for their very first time once Disney California Adventure Park opened the next day.
John Meets Garner Holt
John was introduced to Garner Holt by Richard and Rick of R&R. They would work together on various projects, like the MGM theme park in Las Vegas. Garner would build the animatronics and John would paint the set pieces.
During the 1990’s Garner had been trying to get his foot in the door with Disney to get some jobs going. But that proved difficult as Disney was using mostly internal staff and only a few outsourced vendors. Since John was working on projects with Disney, he was able to take some of Garner’s products to Lloyd Bressler, who was in charge of Imagineering Construction, and suggested that he should really take a look at Garner Holt because he was doing some amazing things with audio-animatronics.
Garner’s first breakthrough with Disney was the creation of the puppetronic character Phil for the “Hercules’ Victory Parade” in 1996.
Who’s This Garner Holt and Rayburn Fellow?
Garner Holt Productions was now beginning to work more frequently on jobs with the Walt Disney Company, from parade float builds for Disneyland to set pieces for Tokyo DisneySea. But it wasn’t until after John Rayburn and Garner got into the Great Moment’s with Mr. Lincoln Theater that Garner Holt Production’s reputation was solidified.
John said, “Redoing Lincoln Theater caused some nervous moments because it was something that Walt worked on. You had people on the internet wondering who was doing this stuff and who is this Garner Holt Company? Who’s this John Rayburn guy doing the paint? What are they doing and are they going to wreck this attraction?”
Brad Kay, Imagineering Art Director, would assign John with the solo job of painting one of Walt Disney’s most beloved attractions. John painted the entire theater. He even painted Lincoln’s chair and touched up Lincoln’s hands.
The rehab was a great success for both John and Garner Holt. So much so, that they were both hired on for one more project of that year.
One More Job For 2001
While working on Lincoln Theater, John shared that Brad Kay had told him that there was something coming up in the works for both he and Garner, but, he couldn’t tell John what it was. John persisted, and all Brad would say was that, “It’s going to be a very haunted overlay.”
John said, “So I thought cool, it might be an overlay for the Haunted Mansion. I didn’t think too much of it. Then it came down from Brian Sandahl, Senior Art Director at the Disneyland Resort, to hire Garner Holt Productions for the overlay and Brad said I should paint it. So we ended up doing the overlay.”
This last big project of the year for John would prove difficult, painful, but oh so memorable. I am of course talking about the Haunted Mansion Holiday which is themed after Tim Burton’s film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
‘TWAS THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS…
Contrary to popular belief, the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay at Disneyland was not dreamed up nor produced by Walt Disney Imagineering, rather, it was a collaboration between Disneyland’s Creative Director Steven Davison (who has since been promoted to Creative Director/ Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment) and Senior Designer Brian Sandahl, (who has since been promoted to Senior Designer/Show Development and Producer at Disney Entertainment Productions).
After the success of “it’s a small world” Holiday, which opened in 1997, Davison’s next idea for an attraction overlay would be for the Haunted Mansion. Davison, along with Senior Writer Carolyn Gardner, would rewrite the classic poem, “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” for the attraction overlay.”
Once guests enter into the foyer of the Haunted Mansion, the Ghost Host begins to recite the following “‘Twas the Nightmare Before Christmas poem:”
‘Twas a long time ago (now longer than it seems).In a place that perhaps, you have seen in your dreams.For the story that you are about to be toldBegan in the holiday worlds of old.I know you’re curious to see what’s inside.It’s what happens when two holidays collide!
(Guests now enter the stretching room and the poem continues)
Welcome, my friends, to our Christmas delight.Come witness a ghoulishly glorious sight.It’s time for our holiday tale to begin.There’s no turning back now-please, come all the way in. Our holiday tale is a tale that’s quite charming.But during this season, it’s sometimes alarming.So relax and reflect, feel free to take pause,While we tell you a tale about dear Sandy Claws.‘Twas the nightmare before Christmas,And all through the house,Not a creature was peaceful-not even a mouseThe stockings, all hung by the chimney with care,When opened that morning would cause such a scare.The children, nestled all snug in their bedsWould nightmares of monsters and skeleton heads!
Blacklight Paint, Blood, and More Blacklight Paint
John shared with me that the installation of the overlay was a huge build out. There were a lot of unknowns for them because nothing had ever been taken into the ride since it’s opening on August 9, 1969, especially as an overlay.
“The Install was horrendous. It was crazy. They had to get these big giant pieces back into places that had no access. The piece that really comes to mind that was really hard to bring in was the pumpkin mountain.” John said.
John explained to me that the famous pumpkin mountain, which is made up of “3 to 4” pieces that stack on top of each other, are built within a metal frame. The problem was they had to get the mountain, piece by piece, to where it sits for the overlay, which is located behind the statues in the graveyard scene. There was no way to get the mountain into that area without having to tie ropes to each one of the pieces. The crew would then have to get up to the catwalks that are located high above the tracks of the attraction to be able to lift the pieces up on pulleys.
John describes it as such, “The pieces had to all be swung over like Tarzan while crew were up on the high catwalks. Then they’d have to get the piece into position to bring it down in front of where the statutes are located because you can’t just slide it over. Below the statues is about a 15 foot drop down to the projectors below. It all had to be lowered in there, piece by piece.”
By the time the pumpkin mountain was Tarzan swung below the catwalk and put into place, it had been chipped up pretty bad, so John had to spend several weeks to repaint and repair it. The problem with the mountain, was, it’s situated in the pit where the projectors are. The tallest ladder they had that would fit in that area only got John halfway up the mountain, so he’d need to get a 15 foot pole to attach his paint brush to so that he would then be able to paint the areas located at the top half of the mountain.
John tells me, “What sticks with me, is, it’s a lot of long hours, and you’re in the dark a long time and you kind of lose perspective. Is it day? Is it night? Everyone’s tired, and all of a sudden I begin to see these blotches going up the mountain. I was thinking, what is going on? I’m wearing socks, because I don’t want to leave shoeprints on it (blacklight paint picks up everything). I’m in my socks and so dust my socks off and climb back up the mountain but I keep seeing these big giant black blotches of something. I’m tired, my feet hurt really badly for some reason, and it’s cold! WHAT IS THIS STUFF?! I’m trying to wipe it off, I don’t have any regular latex paint on here, what have I got on this thing?! I’m trying to clean it off, but it’s semi dried. I didn’t know what was going on, so I had to start to paint over it, but see that it’s coming through the paint…and…OH MY GOSH, it’s going from bad to worse!”
Then John Realized…
Those black splotches he saw all up and down the mountain was blood! John’s feet were bleeding! Located down below in that area are dead broken Manzanita branches used for scenery. Those branches were slicing up John’s feet as he was going up and down the mountain, leaving a trail of blood. Seems rather fitting, being the Haunted Mansion and all, but poor John. He tells me he had to get peroxide to clean up the mountain to get it pristine again so that he would be able to reapply the blacklight paint. He tells me, “IT WAS CRAZY!” Every time I go past Pumpkin Mountain now, I’ll forever think of John leaving his trail of blood.
John would paint all the lettering on the signs for the attraction, he’d paint the Jack Skellington and Zero animatronics that Garner Holt created, he’d paint the wreaths and design their snake like eyes in the stretching room, as well as paint the singing Venus Flytraps, and so much more. An installation that was supposed to last 3 years, has gone on to be an 18 year tradition (due to park closure the attraction did not run in 2020).
Photo Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
With a Disneyland Entertainment Art budget, Art Director Brian Sandahl did not have enough in his budget for an animatronic Sally for the 2001 opening, which he so desperately wanted. He would eventually get a Sally several years later…but not until Tokyo Disneyland got their’s first.
Chris Crump, Larry Nikolai and Tokyo Disneyland Open Their Haunted Mansion Holiday with Multiple Animatronic Versions of Sally in 2004
Shortly after the success of the Mansion’s holiday overlay, John was back at Garner Holt Productions working on something else when he gets paged to go to the phone and it’s to talk to Larry Nikolai, an Artist and now former Art Director/Producer at Imagineering. Larry asked John if he had any paint left over from when he painted the Haunted Mansion Holiday. John let him know he that he did. Larry then immediately told John that he’d meet him at Garner’s the next day.
John continued to tell me, “The next day both Larry and Chris Crump (former Principal Show Production Designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, and son of Disney Legend Rolly Crump) walked into the shop at Garner Holt Productions. Larry introduced me to Chris. He’s a great guy that likes to have fun, he’s always laughing and is a very sharp designer. So they walk in and asked if I could produce all new paint samples, exactly as I had done it before for the mansion’s holiday overlay. I asked why, what’s going on?”
The build for Tokyo Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday went quite smoothly. John painted everything the exact same way he had done for Disneyland. The banners requiring lettering were all done the same way, same lettering, same colors, as he was able to use the original artwork as reference. He said all that was simple, the only difficult part was getting Sally’s lip color perfect.
“The only colors that I had to do differently were for Sally. Larry came down for the day, he wanted to make sure Sally was perfect. He said ‘I want a perfect red. Once you get it, I’ll go home.’ I got the specific skin tone color he wanted, he signed off on that. But the lip color was his big thing, reds are extremely hard to mix. If you go one way a little bit, it’s wrecked. You have to throw it out and start all over again. You can’t add any black that’ll make it go too dark, because then it turns grey. You have to bring the color down to the purples and magentas. It’s a very fine line you have to walk. If you put just a tiny drip, it changes everything and it could go too brown, and then you have to throw that out and try again.
I can mix color really fast. I can go into Splash Mountain and they would say the ride is opening in an hour and we’ll need you out of here; I can field mix it and it’s done. It’s fast. But reds are really hard to mix. Even spectrometers, if you go to a hardware store, and ask if they can mix a specific red… (John laughs) GOOD LUCK because spectrometers can’t do it either. But, I finally got it set and Larry approved it. I saved the colors and have the documents Larry signed approving the colors in case Magic Kingdom or another Disney park ever wanted to add the holiday overlay. (Did you hear that Walt Disney World?!)”
John now had the colors and painted all the Sallys. The only exception, was he did not paint her pupils. Larry wasn’t sure where she would be positioned exactly at the Haunted mansion in Japan, so instructed John to not paint her pupils. Chris Crump would end up painting her pupils once she was installed into her positions at the mansion.
All of the set pieces would be delivered to a facility called the “Airport” where Imagineering had a hangar for the staging and packing of items to be shipped overseas. John would met Chris Crump at the “Airport” for one last minute touch up and to provide him with a paint kit before their overseas departure.
It was at this time that Chris shared some fun tidbits with John about his father Rolly Crump, retired Imagineer and Disney Legend who worked on the design of the original Haunted Mansion.
One of these fun tidbits was a story Chris would go on to recount about the ballroom dancers in the Haunted Mansion. He told John that as a little kid, he was walking through the mansion with his dad and the other Imagineers when he noticed something in the ballroom scene.
Chris said to his dad, “Why are the women leading the men?”
Rolly looks at everyone and shouts, “SEE! Even my kid sees it!”
What had happened was the figures were set up with the men leading the women in the first room, but, when their image is reflected back into the ballroom, for the Pepper’s Ghost Optical Illusion, their image is reversed, so it appears as though the women are leading the men in the ballroom dance scene. Next time you go on the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, make sure you look at the dancers, the women are leading the men!
John went on to tell me that the Nightmare Before Christmas project for Tokyo Disneyland was all the fun from the first show, but without any of the problems they had originally encountered. No blood trails were left by John this go around! John said they could all relax and have fun while working on Tokyo Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday, that’s why John said it was one of his all-time favorite projects at Disney to date.
Brian Gets His Sally!
And as for Brian Sandahl and his dream of a Sally at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday, well he would get one, eventually. Brian had always intended to have a Sally, but Disneyland Entertainment Art and Imagineering are two different beasts with two vastly different budgets to work with. Now that Garner had the molds, because he created them for Tokyo Disneyland, and John saved all the color information for her skin color and lips, the dream of a Sally at Disneyland was becoming a closer reality for Sandahl, but, it would take 15 more years from the time the holiday overlay first began for Brian’s dream to come to fruition. In 2016, Sally finally made it into the Holiday Mansion Overlay. After being painted to perfection by John Rayburn, she now resides in the graveyard scene, lovingly looking at Jack Skellington.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Garner Holt Productions was the first outside company Disney has ever used to create an animatronic character for one if its attractions. Since then they have created more than 400 figures for Disney and its theme parks around the world and now are the world’s largest manufacture of Animatronics and Animatronic figures, parade floats, and so much more. When Disney shut down its Walt Disney Imagineering’s MAPO division, back in 2012, they turned over all the manufacturing of the attractions to Garner Holt Productions. In a statement made by Disney Legend Bob Gurr, he said, “Garner inherits all of Imagineering’s historic animation and show production designs and tooling.”
And as for the Scenic Artist? John Rayburn has never been busier. His scenic artistry can be seen on Mount Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, throughout Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Shanghai Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland, and of course Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park.
Photo Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
John works on many projects outside of Disney too. His top two favorite projects he’s ever painted were painting both the Timber Mountain Log Ride and the Calico Mine Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm, a theme park located just 7 miles from Disneyland.
John Rayburn has his own business and you can find him on Facebook at John Rayburn Consulting. He paints themed paint, Trompe L’oeil, Faux Finishes, Glazes, Artistic Refinishing, Portraits, Aging, Graining, and Marbling.
John has a diverse clientele, whatever you can dream up, John will be able to create it. From adorable nurseries to dental offices, to even backyard scenic artistry, like the famous Orange County backyard of architect David Sheegog. Imagine having a model of Splash Mountain in your backyard painted by THE GUY that painted the original Splash Mountain.
I’ll be writing more about John in future. This blog post is just the tip of the iceberg.
Written by Catherine RamirezPhotos Credit Treb Heining (unless noted)
Treb Comes Home
In 1984, twelve years after Treb Heining left his Balloon Boy job at Disneyland and now a successful entrepreneur with his own company, BalloonArt By Treb, folks at Disney began to take notice of his prolific balloon art installations and designs. None more so than Disneyland’s Art Director Clare Graham. Graham first began to try out Treb on smaller jobs outside of the Park before he would be invited to lend his artistic expertise inside the Happiest Place on Earth.
Treb says, “We did our first event at the Children’s Museum in Los Angeles and a couple other events before Clare finally scheduled an event for us inside the park, which was at the Tomorrowland Stage.”
“Then we started to do more and more events with Disneyland. It got to the point where I would call Clare at his extension and ask what he needed. Clare would tell me, for example, about the Splash Mountain Opening, he’d tell me what he needed, providing me with a list. I’d work on a bid, and Clare would approve it, and so by 10 A.M., my day had been made; I had just made my biggest sale.”
A lot of exciting projects began to happen for Treb within the park for various attraction openings like Captain EO and Disneyland’s grand yearly birthday festivities (which will be a huge chapter in Treb’s upcoming biography).
Disneyland’s 30th Birthday Celebration
Treb’s previous training at Disneyland lent specific principles that he held on to in life and instilled at his own company. Which according to Treb, were to “Dream big, work hard, show respect to all those you work with and always be professional.” Clare would observe this disciplined work ethic and talent in Treb and his crew while on events at Disneyland. Perhaps that is why Clare thought Treb’s hard working crew, with phenomenal skills, was up to a very specific challenge. The Disneyland Art Director’s new idea for Treb would be extreme and perhaps one of Treb’s greatest challenges, up to this point anyway. This new challenge would be a balloon design for Disneyland’s 30th Birthday Celebration.
Treb recalled the following conversation to me:
Clare said, “Treb, what about the idea of getting 30 birthday cake candles, 75 feet high all the way down Main Street?”
Treb Said, “Ok, Clare, Ok.”
Clare Continues, “Then we can put 10 foot spears on the top of each one.”
Treb responds, “OK. Alright.”
Clare finishes, “Work out the price…and all these have to go up while the park is still open to the guests.”
Treb continues, “So in other words the party started that night on the 30th Anniversary at midnight (July 17, 1985). The idea was the party was going to go from midnight on that night all the way until midnight the next day, a 24 hour party. Everything had to be set up by 9am on the morning of the 17th. We did all the columns of balloons in the rehearsal halls, back where the horses were kept (back of house Circle D Ranch). We did the columns in there one day and then the next day we touched them up. We then had a huge crew that marched them in, through the backroad from Small World towards the back of Main Street.”
Treb explained that crews were placed on the rooftops of the buildings all along both sides of Main Street U.S.A. Yet, even with the pictures Treb provided, it is difficult for me to fathom how this was pulled off. I worked on the Main Streets rooftops for confetti drops and TV production filmings, I understand the layout, and yet I have little understanding of how the 75 feet long balloon columns went from one roof to the next while guests were in the park.
Well, somehow Treb’s crew would do just that. They installed the thirty 75 feet long balloon (columns) candles, plus the added 10 foot sphere (to represent the candle’s flame) from one side of a building’s rooftop to another rooftop located across the street. By the time they were done, a canopy of 30 beautifully spiraled columns covered Main Street. Now all they had to do was wait until midnight.
Treb tells me the following about the moment his columns were transformed into something most memorable. He said, “At the nighttime ceremony at the Wish Upon a Star moment at midnight, the extraordinary happens, the canopy of balloons open up and all these perfectly placed columns rose up and transformed into 30 birthday candles.”
Treb gets choked up as he explains this to me and says, “It’s hard for me to talk about. It was pushing us to the limit.”
Treb had to bring in an extra crew of 100 people to do what Treb says was, “Beyond impossible.”
“Well…it didn’t go off without a hitch,” Treb says, “Someone let go of a column too quick and two columns got wrapped, so going down Main Street all of the 85 foot tall columns of balloons were standing straight except the two. We had to race up to the roofs and undue the two columns and when the two finally went up perfect, the whole crowd down below cheered.”
Contributing to the 30th anniversay of Disneyland was certainly a huge and momentous accomplishment for Treb. At 1:00 A.M. that night, on July 18, 1985, Treb trudged back to his hotel room at the Disneyland Hotel with his wife. He had been working nearly 48 hours straight by this time, with very little sleep in-between. Treb explained that as he looked out of his hotel room’s window he could see the 30 balloon columns, in the shape of birthday candles brightly lit from inside, standing 85 feet high with their flame sphere, and he just sat there on the edge of the bed and wept.
Treb recalled, “I just wept. I thought that this would be something that Walt Disney would be very proud of.”
Treb is Introduced to the “T” Balloon
It was around this time, in the mid to late 1980’s when Treb was introduced to several people based out of Japan from the Takara Kosan Company. Henry Unger, the West Coast Rep for the Pioneer Balloon Company (maker of the balloons Treb uses) had invited Treb to his office to meet with them. They showed Treb their “T” balloon that they had created. It was used in Japan for balloon decorations as a way of making balloon décor outdoors last for days and even weeks.
The Japanese company was able to put a 9” latex or an 11” latex balloon inside of the “T” balloon, which was a clear film-like product. When the balloon was blown up it would be the round balloon encased inside of that clear “T” balloon. In other words, a balloon within a balloon-like object. It was unique because it made the balloon that was encased inside last for so long.
As Treb continues to explain to me the details of the “T” balloon, I can hear his excitement begin to grow in his voice as he says, “I remember going to Clare Graham and saying, remember those columns that we did across Main Street for the 30th? Well we could do those columns now but they would be in the “T” balloon and they would last for a week! Instead of just one day! Of course Clare said give me a price but it was astronomical and he turned it down.”
Though Treb thought the product was very interesting and pitched the idea to Disneyland in different ways to use it for décor, the cost was always too high, making it prohibitive, even for Disney. The “T” Balloons ended up going into a drawer at Henry Unger and Associates, and were not seen for a very long time.
From the start of Treb’s business in 1979, not only did Treb coin the phrase “balloonart,” he also invented the balloon arch in 1979, and the first balloon sculpture in 1981. By the 1980’s Treb was working on some stellar projects. In addition to working with the Walt Disney Company, he also worked on more than eighteen Superbowls for NFL, five Academy Award shows and he worked on the 1984 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.
Treb has also worked on the infamous balloon drops for both the Democratic and Republican Presidential National Conventions for many years…
…with the exception to the Democratic National Convention Balloon Drop of 2004, that was the one time Treb’s company wasn’t used, if they had, well, it would have been a much different balloon drop.
Oh, yes, I mustn’t forget to tell you that Treb also set three Guinness World Record Professional Balloon Releases during this time, utilizing Pioneer Balloon Company’s Made in the USA balloons, which is the only balloon company Treb has ever used, as their balloons are 100% biodegradable. The world record releases helped raise over $500,000 for charity in one instance, and more than $50,000 for high school music programs; Treb has always believed strongly in giving back to the community.
One of the professional world record releases occurred in Anaheim, California on what would have been Walt Disney’s 84th birthday. On December 5, 1985, volunteers consisting mostly of high school band students and Marines from the once El Toro Marine base, arrived as early as 3:30 A.M. to fill 1,200,000 balloons, though Guinness official’s record states 1,121,448 with helium rose to the sky that day.
Treb recalls, “I talked to Clare about being able to do the million balloon release and we finally got to do it for Skyfest. It was on Katella, between West Street and Harbor, we had 1,200 tubes of balloons each, which was a monumental feat. During that time I met a man named Bob Gault, he was a great guy and a supervisor of Main Street and we worked on Sky Fest together.”
Treb continues, “I also met a man named Pete Clark that ran merchandise at the time. I sent a letter to him back in 1980 when I first started my company. I let him know I was interested in going back and working the Balloon Department and run it like Nat Lewis (Treb’s first employer at Disneyland back in 1969). I always wanted to come back and run the balloon concessions at the park I started at, for one reason or the other it went by the wayside.”
Once a Balloon Vendor, Always a Balloon Vendor
Although Treb doesn’t currently run Disneyland’s balloon department, he did start balloon concessions at Knott’s Berry Farm, Mall of America, and State Fairs all across the country. Treb tells me that he always kept his hand in balloon vending. Back in 1983 he also started balloon vending at a popular mall in Orange County called South Coast Plaza. His balloon concession stand is a staple at the high-end shopping complex that all children look forward to seeing, while parents, on the other hand, try to steer them away. I myself remember getting my ears pierced at the mall when I was in the 6th grade. Afterwards my mom bought me a ride on the carousel as well as a Treb Heining balloon.
Treb Takes a Break…Sort Of
By 1993, 14 years after Treb first started his company BalloonArt By Treb, he explained to me that the balloon industry had “grown up.”
He said, “The balloon industry itself had changed dramatically. People don’t do things on the scale that we did them back then. That’s what pioneered the industry, yet with all industries, they change and become different. People sit at the balloon conventions and look at my work and they love the history, but they are afraid to attempt stuff like that. We did things in front of people on stage, like the Olympics that had never been done before. People are very reluctant to do that nowadays, even TV Producers. They are reluctant to do something that has not been tried and tested. People like Tommy Walker and Bob Jani (who replaced Walker in 1966 as Disneyland Entertainment Division Director, but is most remembered perhaps for his conceptual idea of the Main Street Electrical parade), loved doing that kind of stuff, it was a little bit dangerous, not to the public, but dangerous if it was going to work or not, but it always made a very spectacular effect for the show. It’s something I am very proud to be a part of what were really first time deals.”
Treb continues, “When I look back at one of my favorite bands, the Beatles, they were only around for 6 to 8 years, but the amount of work they did was unbelievable. Not to put myself in the same category or even the same class as the Beatles, but in the Balloon Industry, the amount of work we did, and the size and scale of the work, was spectacular to the point that when I was approached by Pioneer Balloon company (the company who made the balloons both Disney and Treb worked with) to see if I would teach more people about what I did, that’s what I finally decided to do.
Everybody knows that a baseball player can only pitch baseball for so long, and nobody knows how long you can do the type of work I was doing, and it was exhausting work. I always worked weekends on Special Events, so when I finally went to work for Henry Unger and Associates (Pioneer’s sales rep on the West Coast), people asked what I liked most about it, and I said weekends off! A Saturday and Sunday off for the first time in 15 years!”
With Treb no longer doing his spectacular inventive balloon art installations, it was the end of the great balloon era in terms of balloon décor on the massive and momentous scale Treb was creating. But it certainly was not the end of the great Treb Heining nor his balloon designs.
Henry Unger & Associates
In 1994, Treb began to work at Henry Unger & Associates. Henry Unger was well connected in the toy business and went to Asia quite a bit for the annual toy shows in Hong Kong. Henry had many contacts including buyers at Disneyland where his company was already selling many different items in the Park. When it came to balloons, Henry knew the business side of Pioneer’s distribution system.
One day in 1996, while Henry was cleaning out his office, he stumbled upon the “T” balloon samples the Takara Kosan Company had given him nearly a decade earlier. With THE balloon guy now in house, Treb tells me that Henry walked to his office and plopped the balloons on his desk, telling him to make another stab at coming up with a way to make them work in the U.S. Being the hands on balloon guy, Treb began to think, how could this product translate to being used in the U.S.?
A Flash of Genius
Flash of Genius doctrine states that an invention must indicate the flash of creative genius, not merely a skill of the calling.
Treb said, “Henry’s office was in Santa Monica. I was commuting, which I did not like. One day going home while stuck in traffic, all of a sudden….I was like, wait a minute…wait a minute…if they could make that balloon larger…big enough that we could put a 15” Mickey Mouse balloon inside ohhhh… So next morning I went in and told Henry. I did the initial drawings which showed how I wanted to increase the size as well as make the neck portion of the balloon different to make the stuffing of the Mickey Mouse latex easier.
Henry helped draft the faxes (that’s how communication was happening then) and we started sending faxes back and forth to the manufacturer in Japan.”
Treb recollects the following conversation, via fax…
First fax came back from Takara Kosan Company: “NO. Not Possible. Film is not wide enough.”
Henry and Treb reply: “Fax back if you can do it, we are thinking if you can do it, then we can sell to the Walt Disney Organization.”
Takara Kosan Company: “I think we can make it work.”
When I asked Treb what the exterior film of the balloon was made of, he wouldn’t provide specifics, but he did inform me that the exterior clear film protects the latex balloon inside from oxidation which makes the overall product last for a very long time. He further informed me that this balloon is put into the toy category because children can play with the product for weeks and even months and it can then be re-inflated to last for weeks and months again.
Treb Begins to Test
After samples were sent back and forth between the Takara Kosan Company and Treb over the next year, Treb thinks it’s perfect and he begins to test the product.
Treb tells me, “I initially tested at my house where I would mark the balloons and leave them outside in my backyard to test how long they lasted and also if prolonged exposure to the sun would make a difference. I wanted more adverse conditions before showing to Disneyland so I contacted the LA County Fair in Pomona to set up a meeting to pitch a balloon concession. It just so happened that the person who used to run South Coast Plaza, Jim Henwood, had just taken the head position with the LA County Fair. He was thrilled to see me and connected me with the right people to set up an operation for the Fair in 1997. This gave me the opportunity to work with thousands of pieces of the new balloon as well as see how it performed in the challenging heat and winds of Pomona. The latex balloon inside of the film that was sold at the L.A. Fair were not the Mickey shaped balloons, regular oval latex balloons were used, as I didn’t want to do anything that Disney would be upset about. All went very well and I then felt confident to bring it to Disneyland.”
What’s in a Name?
Treb’s friend, Karen Lamson told Treb that he should name his new creation the Glasshouse Balloon. When he asked her why, she had explained to him that in the early 60’s Disney sold a latex balloon inside a clear latex balloon. In the summer, the clear latex would fog up and it didn’t look good. But everybody used to call it mickey in a glass house back then, so Treb thought that was a perfect idea and said, “Let’s call it the Glasshouse!”
Armed with testing and a great name for Treb’s product, Disney’s approval of the Glasshouse Balloon would be the final step Treb needed to bring his newest creation through the gates of Disneyland.
Henry setup a meeting in 1997 with Sarah Quinn, Disneyland Resort’s Product Development Coordinator.
Treb explains, “A lot of sales calls usually go back and forth trying to get something going. But when we walked into this meeting with 25 different colored Mickey Glasshouse Balloons, we were asked when we could get this into the park. It was just like that. In the meeting I told them that I thought this balloon would outsell the other balloons 3 to 1.”
Sarah told Treb that she thought the Glasshouse should be sold in the new Tomorrowland that was to open the following year. Although Treb thought his balloon could sell in all the lands, he was ecstatic that HIS balloon would be sold at Disneyland, the place where he himself once sold balloons at the age of 15.
The Glasshouse Balloon is sold at Disneyland…Back to the Balloon Room
By May 22, 1998, the New Tomorrowland had been rededicated at Disneyland. Now no longer working at Henry Unger and Associates, in order to concentrate on his Glasshouse balloon and his new deal with Disneyland, Treb returned to the balloon room. Twenty-five years after he left Disneyland as a balloon boy, Treb finds that he not only needs to train the cast members how to fill the glasshouse balloon, but the Mickey shaped latex balloon as well.
Treb explained, “By this time, Disney sold only foil balloons, the Mickey shaped head balloons were completely phased out. It’s now my job to go into the balloon room and teach the balloon department not only how to blow up a Mickey Mouse balloon but how to blow it up inside this Glasshouse balloon. So I go there the first day and I spend 8 to 10 hours working with the department and training the staff. It was going very well. I remember saying to the crew that I’d see them tomorrow. More than half of them said they weren’t on balloons tomorrow because they rotated positions.”
Unlike in 1969 when Treb was a Disneyland Balloon Boy, balloon vending is now lumped into the Outdoor Vending Department, so the cast members are also required to perform other tasks like selling popcorn or cotton candy, etc.
That first day the Glasshouse was sold in Tomorrowland must have been such an exciting day for Treb. Returning to the room where he first met Nat Lewis in 1969 and learned how to tie a balloon really, really fast must have felt incredibly nostalgic. Though it was exciting for Treb, some balloon vendors were not so happy with the new balloon.
We Need More Balloons!
Treb returned the next day to Disneyland to train more Cast Members on how to inflate the Glasshouse.
Treb recalls, “I go back the next day and some of the balloon vendors that had been there the previous day cornered me and told me that they didn’t really like this product.”
“Why, it didn’t sell?” Treb asked them.
“Oh…no, no, no,” they responded. “We are used to the foil balloon. When we send the vendor out with the foil balloon we normally don’t have to worry about them for 3 to 4 hours because they have enough product but when we send them out with the glasshouse balloon we have to give them more product in like 10 minutes, we can’t keep up.”
“And that’s why you don’t like it?” Treb said.
“Well Ya, it’s really hard to keep up with the sales.”
After the first month with only one vendor in Tomorrowland, the glasshouse was outselling not Treb’s original 3 to 1 prediction, but was outselling the other 5 foil balloon vendors combined, by 5 to 1. The Glasshouse became a fixture, and pretty soon the foil balloons began to fall by the wayside. It was a roaring success, but with any new product there are kinks that eventually need to be worked out.
Treb tells me that, “With any new product, there are lots of glitches that happen and that was very much the case with the glasshouse balloon. I worked very closely through the early structure of that product because we had lots of problems in the beginning because it was a new process for Japan. I baby sat it every step of the way. I’d get these phone calls from Disneyland, saying this is happening, and boom I’d be over there and I would help them. I was always vigilant and was at Disneyland often in solving problems and working to make the product better and better. Without those efforts, I doubt the product would have survived.”
The Glasshouse Balloon Takes Over the World
Hong Kong Disneyland
Treb said, “Hong Kong Disneyland was the next park to start using the Glasshouse balloons. I trained the department and was there for the opening day on September 12, 2005.”
Walt Disney World
Treb continues, “I then investigated Rubio Arts, owned by Nat Lewis’ friend Jess Rubio, who ran Walt Disney World balloon concessions in Florida. I had been trying to get his production guy, David Johnson to bring the Glasshouse to Florida. They wouldn’t do it…wouldn’t do it…wouldn’t do it for years! And then I get a call from David saying that Jess is having his high school reunion at the Santa Ana Country Club and asked me if it was possible that I could do some balloons for Jess’s reunion. I said, DONE! Where is it, when is it? I went over there and was experimenting with the “Light up Stick.” That’s another product that we invented. So, for Jess Rubio’s reunion, not only did we do Mickey Mouse Glasshouse Balloons, but they also had light up sticks in them.” Treb continues with huge laughter as he continues to tell me, “The next day, I get a call from David that they were bringing in the Glasshouse balloons to Walt Disney World!”
David Koo, Director of Merchandise at The Walt Disney Company, contacted Treb asking if he would consider running the operation in Shanghai. Treb shared with me that he had been trying to do that for all the parks so was excited to take on Shanghai. Treb started two new corporations, one in Shanghai called Magic Glasshouse Umbrella LTD and TNH Amusements LTD which is based in Hong Kong.
Treb tells me that his son Damon Tieu moved to Shanghai and has been running the companies for the last five years.
Damon Tieu and Treb Heining at Shanghai Disneyland
Just as Treb taught Damon the art of balloon vending, Damon in turn taught Treb what balloon vending was like in a foreign land in terms of weather, environment and preferences for Disney characters. Disney Princesses for example aren’t as big a draw as the most popular character in Shanghai, Donald Duck.
Treb says, “Damon is running the Shanghai operation on a level that I don’t think even I could do.”
Treb explained that it was a lot of work to go to China and train everyone, but their sales have been phenomenal.
Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea
I asked Treb about his experience in getting his Glasshouse balloon to Tokyo Disneyland. I myself was a Cast Member who worked at the Tokyo Disneyland Resort on five separate contracts between the years 2001 to 2005. There is just something so magical about the Tokyo Disney Resorts, that can’t truly be explained, unless you yourself experience it. During my time working for the Oriental Land Company, which owns the Tokyo Disney Resort, I never remembered seeing the glasshouse balloon at the parks in Japan and I was curious how difficult it was to break into the Japanese market.
Treb tells me, “For years we tried to figure out the Japanese market. Henry helped, knowing the Asian market. We took the bull by the horns and scheduled a trip over there and learned everything we needed to know about what went on in Japan. It was a very hard process and it took me 10 years of many meetings. The Japanese people want to make sure that you’re going to be there. You aren’t just going to come in and sell something and go. I was scheduled, meeting after meeting, every three months for ten years.”
The turning point was when Shanghai Disneyland opened in 2016. The Tokyo Disney representatives would visit Damon at Shanghai Disneyland to see how the balloon operation was run on several occasions, resulting in the formation of a strong business relationship.
“Damon had a huge influence on Tokyo Disney bringing the glasshouse balloon to their resort,” Treb said.
Damon worked shoulder to shoulder with Treb on the final meetings at Tokyo Disney, leading up to the Glasshouse Balloon’s debut. And then finally on April 15, 2019, the Glasshouse Balloon made its first appearance at Tokyo Disneyland.
Treb says, “It was one of the proudest moments of my life. It was absolutely incredible for me now to look back and think about how it all transpired, but the fact that I get to do something in some place that I love so much. And Tokyo Disney, I gotta tell you, because you know having worked at Tokyo DisneySea yourself, but I consider that to be one of the finest theme parks in the world. I really believe, that the Japanese do it the way Walt would. He would be so thrilled walking those parks. All the Cast Members they are always on, they’re doing it exactly the way it’s supposed to be done. The Japanese Market, I just love the way they treat our products and our history. Sometimes I would wear my name tag from ’69 on my coat and when we went to lunch we would get into these talks, and I would start talking about my experiences, just like I’m telling you, and oh my gosh, everyone would just stop and ask questions and what about this, and this, they want to know so much. They love the history of Disney and when you can tell them… in 1970 when I… they just loved it, and I loved it too.”
22 years later, Treb’s most magical balloon of them all, the Glasshouse Balloon remains the best selling balloon of all time and is now sold at nearly all Disney theme parks around the world, with the one exception of Disneyland Paris, but don’t worry, Parisians, Treb is working on it.
Hard Work is Good For You
I asked Treb about his success and his never give up attitude and he tells me the following, “My success was formed by the very things I learned at Disney. It’s absolutely true. Dream Big: because I used to sit and think, how did Walt think of this? The same way that people would ask me sometimes how I came up with this glasshouse balloon idea. The answer, you have to dream. You have to spend so much of time every day dreaming, you know, just thinking. Sometimes I sit for long periods of time doing nothing, but just thinking. And then ideas will come to you. For a while, when I’m on the freeway driving back and forth it gave me time to think.
You have to Dream Big, Not Be Afraid to Work Hard, and Always Be Professional. Those 3 things that Disney taught me. And hard work…come on! Unless we’re born as a prince or something, we all have to work, right? Working hard I never minded, I don’t believe anything is worthwhile, unless you work for it. Find something you like to do because you’re going to work and working hard isn’t bad. It’s good for you. I say to people now, I built my own house, I am living the greatest life, and my only worries is that I’m not going to live long enough. I don’t want it to end. If I can do this in this country of ours, with balloons, come on! Is this not the greatest country in the world? If you are willing to just apply yourself and work hard you can do whatever you want. I don’t care what your idea is, you just have to be willing to work hard.”
What’s Happening Now?
In addition to working on new balloon designs with the Walt Disney Company, and creating new products utilizing his MyOwnPet Balloon Company, Treb is also co-writing his biography, which I am certainly very excited to read.
Treb shares, “My thrill now, I have thousands of pictures from Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. The thrill of the kids when you see them and they want a balloon so bad, I love it. At South Coast Plaza when you see a kid go walking by and you see the parent says no no no, they go around the corner, and next thing I know, here comes the child dragging that parent saying OK, OK!” Treb continues with a robust laughter, “If it were up to me, we’d be poor because I’d give all the balloons away!”
Returning to the Melody
When Treb was first hired as a Disneyland Balloon Boy in 1969, I don’t think his 15 year old self could have possibly imagined that his dream job would have lasted a lifetime. Treb told me that a Dixieland Musician once told him, that in Jazz, it’s always important to return to the melody. Treb’s melody is balloon vending. His hope is to return to Disneyland to run the balloon concessions where his balloon vending first began. I can’t see anyone more perfect or more destined for that role. Can you?
Written by Catherine Ramirez, Photos Provided by Treb Heining (unless otherwise noted)
Nat Lewis Teaches Treb About the Balloon Garland
In 1969 Treb Heining was cast as a Disneyland Balloon Boy in one of the greatest shows of all time and his stage was Disneyland. Lucky for Treb, he worked for Nat Lewis, whose career prior to working at Disneyland was to put on a show under the Big Top. For 22 years, Nat was the #1 Go To producer for Shrine Circuses. A fact Treb never knew about him until many years later while in the process of co-writing his biography. I find it interesting that Nat worked for the circus most of his life and yet, curiously, never shared with the balloon boys the very important role he once played.
Nat was certainly an interesting man, who described himself as a “cold blooded pro.” By others, he has been described as a short man with droopy eyelids that always wore a Mickey Mouse watch. While Treb describes Nat as someone who always had a cigar in his hand, well spoken, gruff, and yet possessed a heart of gold.
Treb said, “You could go to him and say you were down on your luck and Nat would immediately ask us what do you need to borrow? When are you gonna pay it back? And he’d then take out his wallet and hand us the money.”
Nat would have a lot of people from the circus come by and visit him in the balloon room (at Disneyland) and he would often do things for the circus industry parties. It’s at one of these parties that Treb learned a basic balloon garland formation. Treb explains, “At one of these parties, we started putting 4 round balloons on a paper clip and putting it on a line, the same kind of line used at Disneyland, and then you would pack those clusters of 4 very tightly and that formed a garland of balloons. I remember doing that at the Newporter Inn in Newport Beach (California). After going home that night and talking to Gordan, (a fellow balloon vendor coworker) I remember saying to him that I thought this could be done on a large scale bases.”
To which Gordan replied, “Treb, you’re never going to get anyone to pay for this. Nat does this right now for a living and it’s just too expensive.”
Treb continues by saying, “They always poo pooed the idea.”
After being exposed to the basic balloon garland design showed to him by Nat Lewis, Treb saw the potential in the use of balloons that others hadn’t yet seen. At the age of 18, a spark of an idea was now formulating in Treb’s mind, and his idea would continue to grow with him, even after leaving Disneyland in 1972.
Good Bye Disneyland…For Now
Although Treb had left the balloon department at Disneyland, he would continue to experiment with his own ideas while creating beautiful balloon garland for his family and friends on special occasions.
Treb said, “Whenever someone I knew had a birthday, I’d blow up 9 inch and 11 inch balloons. It always required hundreds and hundreds of balloons. But that was never a problem because I learned how to tie balloons (from the best at Disneyland), so that part was easy. I always noticed the reaction when I did this for family and friends. It was a huge deal seeing air inflated garland that would be hung around the house.”
As you read this today, you’ll need to understand that balloon garlands are commonplace now, but they weren’t back in the early ’70’s, at least not the type and certainly not the scale Treb was designing, they simply didn’t exist.
Now a Music Major student at Golden West College, Treb had no income. He didn’t come from a lot of money and learned at a very young age that if he wanted something, he’d have to pay for it. Still in need of a job, that was flexible with his classes at school, Treb’s father, a purchasing agent for the Southland Corporation, which included all the 7-11 stores and a dairy-for-home delivery service at the time, encouraged Treb to take on a milk delivery route.
His father told Treb that all the milkmen were independent contractors and if they needed the day off, they would need someone to run the route in their place and they were paid cash money. That sounded perfect for Treb. Now there were two routes out of the Glendale office, where his father was working. One, which started at 3:00 AM, delivered the milk to the front porch and they would be done by 9:00 AM in the morning. The second route, which is what Treb did, was the Beverly Hills Route. He didn’t have to start until 5:30 or 6:00 AM because for this route, he had to go into people’s homes.
The Milkman and Lucille Ball???
Treb tells me, “On this route you went into the kitchens and talked to the cook or butler and you would fill the refrigerator with everything they needed, like bacon, butter, eggs, yogurt, milk, orange juice, and cottage cheese. I’d rearrange the refrigerator until it was all done. On this job I got to meet people like Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, IN THEIR KITCHENS!” Treb exclaims. He continues, “Johnny Mathis I would see a couple times a week, Jerry Lewis… for an Orange County kid, this was an eye popping and an amazing experience. I could go on and on.”
Oh, how I wanted Treb to go on and on, but somethings must be left for the book he’s currently writing, so I let it go, though secretly, yearned for more. While Treb did not go on, he did point out that his milk route opened his eyes to a whole new lifestyle than what he was used to.
Treb said, “As I would leave one of these homes, Abbey Rentals would be out there covering a pool with a wooden structure to make a dance floor or put up big tenting for parties. That was the impetus for me as I moved on from that job.”
Treb Gets Sidetracked By a Chocolate Chip Cookie Made By Wally Amos
Treb says to me, “I was living in Glendale at the time. Wally had a cookie shop on Sunset Boulevard. The first chocolate chip cookie shop in the country. He was an entrepreneur. He was the first black booking agent at William Morris Agency. He used to bake these cookies at home and used them as his calling card and that was the start of his Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies. I stopped into his store a few times and liked them so much that I started working there as a cashier on the weekends. Back in those days I was practicing my horn 8 hours a day, going to school, working my milk routes and working at Famous Amos Friday, Saturday and Sundays. Eventually Wally and Sid Ross, who ran it, came to me and told me they’d like me to manage the store on the weekends, so I became a manager. Then Wally said that we were going to start producing wholesale cookies out of a plant in Van Nuys and I want you to run the plant.”
Treb continues to explain that he told Wally that he didn’t know anything about running a plant, to which Wally replied, “You’ll learn, you’ll learn.” So Treb worked with Wally Amos as Wally’s Famous Amos Cookies went nationwide. Treb says they were making 3000 lbs of handmade cookies a day!
One day, Wally Amos had a display at some sort of a promotional event and had Treb help him out. Still, with the love of balloons coursing through his veins, Treb immediately began to creatively add balloons to this display. Treb recollects that Wally turned to him in amazement at the balloon décor and questioned how he could have possibly learned how to do this. So amazed by this, Wally gave Treb some great advice by telling him that he should contact some caterers, further emphasizing that his balloon designing could be a business.
Dave Klein AKA Mr. Jelly Belly
While working for Wally Amos, there was this guy that would deliver the pecans for the cookies. Treb states, “We used quality ingredients and there was this guy that ran a company called Garby Nut House in Los Angeles and he was our pecan supplier. His name is Dave Klein. Dave was an absolute character and I would always look forward to when he would come by. One hot summer day in Van Nuys, in comes Dave’s truck, but before he starts unloading he tells me that he made People Magazine this week and throws it to me. I told him, yeah right, just unload the pecans. I went back to my office to look through the magazine and sure enough, there’s a full picture of Dave in a vat of Jelly Bellys.”
“This is what I’ve been talking to you about.” Dave told Treb.
Dave Klein, the inventor of Jelly Belly jelly beans back in 1976, was a huge supporter of Treb. He would often tell Treb, while he was working at Famous Amos, how sharp he was, that he could run a Fortune 500 Company, and that he really could do anything he wanted, including starting his own business.
Treb Finds His Way
Treb left Wally Amos but continued his friendship with Dave Klein. The year after Treb left Wally was a tough year for him, but during that year, Dave continued to encourage him. Treb would often spend time at Dave’s house with his family and on one of those nights, Dave brought up Treb’s idea of starting his own balloon business. He told Treb that he really ought to try out this idea.
Treb said, “I told him fine, I’m going to try it out for one year and see if I can do it.”
Dave and Treb continued to talk that night about this business Treb would create. Dave asked him about what he thought a business like that would need to start. Treb didn’t really know what he would need, maybe a thousand dollars to start. But what Treb did know were the specifics of what he wanted his company to be. He was adamant that he only wanted to do balloon décor, that’s it, not delivering it, no centerpieces, just massive balloon décor. Now all Treb needed was the name of his company. Who better to come up with the name than Mr. Jelly Belly himself? Treb told me that Dave Klein is a master with names, and it was Dave who actually thought up the name of his company, BalloonArt By Treb. It was an encouraging night. Treb now had a vision of what his company would be and he had a name for it. The seed that was planted back in 1972 was now beginning to grow.
Treb tells me he went back another night to visit Dave and his family, which was a usual thing for him to do. Though, this one night in particular was different.
Treb said, “Dave came out with $1,000.00 cash and he said…” Treb hesitates momentarily; I can see tears begin to well up in his eyes during our Zoom interview, and with a crackling in his voice Treb continues, “He said pay me back when you can and I did. I did pay him back.”
It’s been 41 years since Dave Klein loaned his friend Treb Heining $1,000.00 to start his balloon business. Yet, in that moment talking to Treb, I could instantly feel the gratitude Treb still feels for his friend and the generous decision Dave made that night. Dave had an unwavering belief in his friend it seems. He never stopped encouraging him, and now it was up to Treb to make his way.
BalloonArt By Treb Is Born
In 1979, now at the age of 25, Treb Heining started his business, BalloonArt By Treb out of an apartment on Vantage Avenue in North Hollywood. It was the first and only company in the world that was doing balloon décor and effects for parties and events. Treb remembered Wally Amos’ advice and reached out to a few caterers in Los Angeles. One of which was “Renta Yenta,” a successful catering business that was owned by two women, Lila Greene and Toby Brown. They were kind to Treb, and hired him based solely on the ideas that he shared with them, as he had no proof of concept photos.
Treb explains that in those days, balloons were only used for birthday parties, or circus events. Treb always accepted the small project, but always brought extra supplies and would ask the caterer if he could decorate an area with what he wanted to do. It would be in those areas that would always involve creating what he called “balloon columns.”
Cher Witnesses the Birth of Treb’s Balloon Arch
The caterers at Renta Yenta asked Treb to help out with balloons for a birthday party for Cher and Greg Allman’s son Elijia Blue who was turning three years old.
Treb said, “Back in those days, caterers had like $50.00 for balloons. They’d say just a few 5 inch balloons here on this table. In this case I asked if I could do what I wanted on the tennis court, the caterer said sure. We ended up doing this large column over the tennis court. I then thought, hey Elijia “Blue,” he was 3 years old at that time in 1979, and we had a bunch of blue balloons, why don’t we put helium in these? And so we put helium in the 4 balloon clusters and I made an archway of balloons that connected these columns that went over the tennis court, and that was the very first balloon arch ever done in the entire world. Just came by happenstance. Cher then came out onto the tennis court and took a picture with us, the stuff we were doing was so spectacular back then because no one had ever seen anything like it. So we had a picture with Cher in front of the arch and we rode balloon arches for many, many years before there was any company that even came close.
The pictures below show Treb’s team at Elijah’s 3rd birthday party. If you’ll notice, the balloons that are on the tables behind them are what the caterer requested. The other pictures of Cher’s tennis court, was Treb’s improvisation. He was always finding ways to be creative and introduce the world to see what balloon art could be. He was paid $50.00 for this job, but after seeing the tennis court design was tipped an extra $50.00!
Treb said, “We were so proficient. As we went on we developed systems. I would always work shoulder to shoulder with my crew, so pretty soon people were tying balloons just as fast as me. We had crews up to 10 – 20 people that were just monsters. We would go into a ball room and transfer it just like a snap of a finger. I remember the busboys that would be putting up tables and chairs would sometimes just sit and watch the balloons going up, the columns, the arches, the work was spectacular. Did we have to market? Did we have to solicit? NO. Every event we did we got 4 or 5 calls. It was all I could do to keep up with the ringing phone and making appointments.”
BalloonArt By Treb is Going Hollywood
This was a passion for Treb, he was doing things that were just off the charts now and was written into the Hollywood scene very quickly.
Treb says, “Hollywood caught on to it, the film companies, the premiers, after parties, L.A. was our oyster. We owned the town. There wasn’t a big event in town that we were not involved with. We were on a roll. We eventually had our first office on Melrose across from Pacific Design Center.
Through the 1970’s and into the early 1980’s, Treb was the first to pioneer balloon designs in the form of arches, columns, letters, logos, spiral designs and sculpture. We’ve all seen balloon designs like these before, they seem commonplace now, but they wouldn’t be common today, if it weren’t for Treb Heining who first dreamt them.
Treb Meets Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker, the son of Disneyland bandleader Vesey Walker, was also a musician and served as the band director at the University of Southern California. Walt Disney attended one of the football games at USC and saw the band perform their halftime show in 1955. After seeing the show, Walt asked Tommy to plan the day’s events for the July 17, 1955 grand opening of Disneyland.
After the momentous grand opening, Tommy was hired as Disneyland’s very first Entertainment Director. Walker would introduce many firsts to Disneyland’s stage, like the Candlelight Procession, but what he is most remembered for were the nighttime firework spectaculars that he brought to Disneyland’s night sky.
After many years at Disneyland, Tommy had a falling out with Walt Disney which ultimately led to his dismissal. After he was let go, Tommy went on to create his own special event company called Tommy Walker Spectaculars.
In the early 1980’s, Tommy started calling Treb, wanting his balloon art for half time shows for the NFL. This then led Treb into work with the Super Bowls, and the Rams, when they first moved from L.A. to Anaheim. Tommy and Treb had a great working relationship and the two would work together at the World’s Fair in 1984 in New Orleans and then they both came together again to work on the 1984 Olympics Opening Ceremony, which Treb says, “Put BalloonArt By Treb on the map.”
By 1984, 5 years after Treb first started BalloonArt By Treb, and now at the age of 29, his company was grossing $1 million a year in sales.
It’s around this time that the Disney organization began to notice Treb. Disneyland’s Art Director Clare Graham wanted to start trying him out. First Treb was utilized for projects at locations outside of the park, like at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.
Treb Shares, “Clare was not going to let BalloonArt By Treb come in and do their first deal inside the park, he was going to test us out just to see how we worked. We did our first event at the Children’s Museum in Los Angeles and a couple other events before he finally scheduled an event for us inside the park.”
Treb was excited with the prospect of being able to design and share his balloon art with a company he revered. Stepping back into the place where he first started as a balloon boy back in 1969 was Treb’s goal. By this time, Treb was already known as a proven pioneer in an industry he created. There was no competition. BalloonArt By Treb was the best and Disney was now calling. Soon the gates would open for Treb to return, not knowing then of course, that the best was yet to come.
On May 22, 1998 at the mere price tag of $100 million, the new Tomorrowland was rededicated at Disneyland with special guests in attendance, including astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Tomorrowland opened with a new esthetic, attractions and exhibits like Rocket Rods and the American Space Experience. Although these additions no longer exist today, including most of Tomorrowland’s 1998 makeover, there is one special item that also appeared in Tomorrowland around this time, and not only does it continue to exist today, it has flourished. It is an invention so magical in design, that it includes a 15” Mickey Mouse head shaped latex balloon incased inside of a round film that protects the latex Mickey balloon from oxidizing on the hot summer days. If inflated correctly, it seals the helium filled balloon in such a way that it can remain airborne for well over a month. I am of course talking about the Glasshouse balloon which remains as vibrant, new and exciting today as when it first graced Disneyland’s Tomorrowland back in 1998.
When I worked on film production at the Disneyland Resort during that time, the Glasshouse balloon was one of the highest demanded props for commercials, B-Roll and still photo shoots. On one occasion, I remember being told to pick up these important props from the balloon man who just so happened to be at Disneyland that day. I vaguely remember retrieving these special balloons from a nice dressed man who was backstage in the balloon room. The term “balloon man,” I would learn many years later, would be a severe understatement. For Treb Heining is more than a balloon man, he is THE man, a visionary, who would ignite a balloon industry and invent the bestselling balloon of all time.
To understand Treb Heining, you first have to learn about his origins. His father, a native Californian, was a paratrooper in the U.S. Army stationed out of Fort Bragg. His mother was born and raised in the village of Babylon on Long Island, New York. On one fateful trip, Treb’s father and his Army buddies went on leave to the Big Apple, and it’s here, in New York City where his parents would meet and fall in love.
The Heinings got married in 1953 and decided to purchase a home in Garden Grove, California. One of their deciding factors to purchasing the home was its proximity to a new park Walt Disney was going to build in the neighboring city of Anaheim. They had envisioned it as a nice place to take their children, a park complete with swings and slides. Unbeknownst to them what Walt Disney’s term of a “park” truly meant, and that of course, was the park we know today as Disneyland.
Because of their close proximity, Treb’s parents would often take both he and his brother to The Happiest Place on Earth.
The below home movie is Treb Heining as a youngster leading the Disneyland Band in 1957.
A Glimmer of Hope
By the time Treb entered high school in 1969, he joined the high school band. Being in the band meant that Treb had many upper grade friends, most of whom were 18 years of age and working at Disneyland. Treb wanted to work at Disneyland too, in the worst way. But at the age of 15, he could not be hired as a Cast Member.
And then, one night, a glimmer of hope for Treb. His father came home with a phone number on a piece of notepaper. His father had a friend who knew that Nat Lewis, who had been running the balloon concession at Disneyland since Walt hired him in 1956, hired workers as young as 16 years old to work in the balloon department. Nat was able to do this because his company was a lessee, a third party vendor. Still only 15 years old, Treb Heining was on a mission to work at Disneyland any way he could. He immediately called the number his father had given him, and informed the person who answered the phone that he was available immediately.
Treb said, “They told me they weren’t hiring now so to call back in a couple months. So I called the next day and they told me that, yes, we got your call yesterday but we’re not hiring now so just give it some time and we’ll call you back.”
Would you like to take a guess what happened on the third day? You’re right, Treb called once again, except this time, Treb was invited to come in and fill out an application. Treb was certainly excited that his persistence payed off.
The Day Treb Heining Filled Out an Application
Treb’s parents drove him to Harbor Gate at Disneyland. Back then there was a parking lot right in front of Disneyland where he could be dropped off. He made a phone call to the balloon room from the Harbor Security Gate and was instructed how to walk backstage. Treb ended up walking underneath the train tracks and over to the balloon room, just past where the People Mover tracks and parts were stored. He walked in and sat down, nervously filling out his application. Shortly thereafter, Treb began to hear communications go back and forth between the managers over the phones about someone not being able to show up for work.
One of the managers then turned to Treb and said, “You wanna work today?”
To which Treb quickly replied, “Yes!”
After telling his parents they would have to come back and pick him up later, Treb went out that very day as a balloon vendor to sell balloons. He was now an official Nat Lewis Balloon Boy making $1.35 per hour. It was a whole 15 cents less per hour from the previous job he was working at, but Treb didn’t mind. He was working at Disneyland!
An Official Disneyland Balloon Boy
Treb’s first day out as a Balloon Boy was a rite of passage, in that he had to wear an outfit no other Balloon Boy would wear. The Costuming Department had given Nat Lewis several costumes for the Balloon Boys to try out, and none of the other boys would wear this one.
Treb remembers that his costume was a “Yellow thing with fluffy pants and yellow tights and I remember all the other senior balloon boys were coming out during that evening just to come by and look at me and laugh. I didn’t care because I got to be working at Disneyland. I will never forget that first time of walking past the Inn Between (the backstage lunch cafeteria for cast members) to the entrance that lets you out just past the north side of Plaza Inn with my balloons. It was the first time in my life of walking into Disneyland that wasn’t through the Main Gate (Treb laughs with a fondness I can hear in his voice).”
Treb shared that his feelings were of nothing more than pure excitement to be in THE PARK, and as we continued the interview he said, “That’s how it all began.”
Five Balloon Boy Positions
There were five positions where a balloon boy would sell the balloons. They were Fantasyland, Small World, Good Gate and Bad Gate (near the front of the park’s Main Gate) and Subland (located in-between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, the pathway just past Matterhorn Mountain). The term Good Gate was derived because guests would often pass through the Emporium and then exit the park towards the right tunnel entrance, so that side of the gate would always have many more guests exiting, therefore more balloon sales. Bad Gate was on the opposite side of the street, towards where Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln is located.
Treb said that “It was very advantageous to work either Subland or the Gates as you got to wear the really cool outfit. Which was the blue pants, striped shirt, the vest and the straw hat. But, you only got to wear that after you worked there for a while.”
Treb first started his role in Fantasyland and he further explained that in Fantasyland and Small World, the balloon boys had to wear the not as cool Peter Pan costume.
The Art of Selling
Treb learned from Nat Lewis that “bending the balloon,” having a large quantity, is important. To this day, the different concessions that Treb works with at the various Disney Parks around the world, he stresses how important it is to keeping the “umbrella full.” A huge umbrella of balloons causes people to stop and look at them.
Treb explained that after a guest stops to look at the beautifully arranged balloons, they might say, “Woah, that’s cool, hey how much are these? Boom. That’s the opening you get. A very basic marketing technique that was taught to me back then. Once you get someone to ask a price of something, it opens a door to talking to them.”
Walt Disney did not want a carnival atmosphere at Disneyland, and the selling of balloons was no exception. Unlike carnivals, where a balloon vendor may yell, “Here, here, come get your balloon!” Disneyland’s balloon vendors are not allowed to approach the guest. The guest must come to the vendor. A way to entice the guest would be to keep the balloon umbrella perfectly flat, arranged and even, to the point where the balloon boy would be able to hold up to 100 balloons.
Another technique Treb learned, which he uses to this day, is how to sell by burying the price. “We were taught that when a guest asks about the balloons and ask the price, I would say, my balloons are 50 cents, and I don’t know what color you like, but I have a green one, a red one, a blue one, oh, this is a new one, it’s the white one and I would talk about the product and then…” Treb asks me, “What happened to the price?” Treb goes on to share that, “It’s a basic marketing strategy of burying the price. I wouldn’t say it’s 50 cents and then stand there, because then people would complain and say that they can buy a whole packet of balloons for 50 cents.”
When Treb first started to sell balloons, the Mickey Mouse head balloon was made of latex and smaller than today’s version.
“We sold them for 35 cents. Which was always hard to make change if someone ordered three. About one year after I worked there, in 1970, they went to the larger mouse head and charged 50 cents. That is the same size they sell today, but without the glasshouse.”
The vendors always wanted to sell as many balloons as they could, as it was much easier to stand with less balloons, because if you had a lot, and it became windy, the balloons became very hard to keep arranged.
The room crew, under Nat Lewis’ guidance, would always keep everyone loaded up with balloons, especially if the crew heard that Nat was going to be in the park that day.
Treb explained that everyone had to be on their best behavior when Nat Lewis was around. “If you weren’t standing in the right spot or if he saw somebody who didn’t have enough balloons, there was hell to pay.”
“After you worked there for a while, you would eventually move up to the room position,” Treb said. “In the room position, you would fill the balloons and deliver them to the sellers in the park.”
Working your way up into the balloon room, which is where the balloons were inflated was a place Treb learned a great deal. He explained that the balloon boys took a great amount of pride in what they did and they did things as quickly as they could.”
It’s here in the balloon room where Treb learned the spin-tie method, where you would spin around thread to tie off the balloon. The spin-tie method was important, because if the balloons weren’t sold by the end of the night, the balloon boys would have to return to the balloon room to untie them. The spin-tie method enabled the vendors to quickly untie the balloons, let the helium out and then toss the balloons into a dryer for a few minutes. The heat from the dryer would cause the balloon to shrink back down to its original size so it could be re-blown the next day. Treb and the other boys hated re-blows, because they weren’t as fresh as the other balloons, so they often tried their hardest to sell out their balloons each night, which they often did.
I asked Treb how fast he could tie a balloon.
He responded by saying, “Spin tying was one thing, but actually tying a latex balloon came about when we used to do the Christmas Parade.” Treb went on to explain that the finale unit of the Christmas Parade had six cars. Each car had a letter spelling out T.H.E. E.N.D. and throughout the parade there would be an elf that would pull a string to one of the boxes and a balloon release would occur for the parade two times a day. Nat Lewis would always bring in extra boys to help with the parade.
“So, there was a few of us regular Disneyland Balloon Boys, as we called ourselves,” Treb explains, who would have to go back there and help out. I remember we didn’t like it so much. We wanted to work in the balloon room or back out on stage, so we would challenge each other. We knew we had so many balloons to inflate. We got to the point where we could inflate and tie these balloons so fast. Back in those days they were 9 inch balloons and we could do 17 to 20 per minute. It’s mind boggling to watch.”
Treb told me he could inflate and tie about 1000 balloons in one hour and posted a YouTube video of just how he used to it. Click on the link below.
“That’s where I learned the skill of being able to inflate and tie balloons really, really fast. This was a skill that was comical to us back then, but we were just trying to get back to doing what we wanted to do.” Treb and the other Disneyland Balloon Boys always looked at the guys that Nat brought in seasonally to help during the Christmas season as not really being folks they wanted to associate with.
“They didn’t have the haircuts we had, I mean we were very proud of the fact that we were Disneyland Balloon Boys,” Treb continues by saying, “When I say Disneyland Balloon Boys, that’s because there were no girls in the operation at that time. It was the 60’s and this group of Balloon Boys was this tightknit group of guys, very much a hierarchy of seniority, and who could do it the best, but ultimately just some of the best days of my life.”
The Opening of Walt Disney World
Nat Lewis announced a contest during the springtime of 1971. He informed the Balloon Boys that six would be chosen to go and help with the balloon release at the grand opening of the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971. Treb tells me that they really had to mind their “P’s and Q’s.” The boys were all on their best behavior hoping to be chosen; and ultimately, Treb Heining was one of the boys awarded with the opportunity to be on the balloon crew for the opening of Walt Disney World.
The Flight of a Lifetime
“We got a last minute letter delivered to us, telling us where to be at LAX,” Treb explains, “My dad drove me, and he was saying good-bye and then my dad started noticing Annette Funicello, Forrest Tucker, and Agnus Morehead…my dad goes to the payphone and calls his work to tell them he’s going to be late. Somehow, Nat had arranged for all us balloon boys to get on the Disney charter plane. Everybody that was on that plane was a who’s who of Hollywood. Everybody who had basically been in a Disney movie before was on that plane. The plane took off and then Jonathan Winters gets up and takes over the mic and was making funny announcements in the voice of Mickey Mouse. Frankie Avalon, Fess Parker and Sterling Holloway, who I grew up to listening narrate “Peter and the Wolf,” and he’s sitting in the seat behind me! Then people started to ask what we did.” Treb then says, with great laughter, “We’re balloon boys!”
When the plane landed, the stars went off to their fancy accommodations, and the balloon boys got into Nat’s van. Treb was so excited that he was able to be there for the opening.
Treb said, “It was a beautiful balloon release of 50,000 balloons, a very heady experience. Of course, not knowing at that time that I was going to make a living in balloons.” The skills Treb first learned while working at Disneyland at a very early age he says, was to “dream big, work hard, show respect to all those you work with and always be professional.” Those skills and beliefs not only helped him to start his own business, but it ended up starting a worldwide industry, turning Treb’s dream job into a job that would last a lifetime.
A Disneyland Balloon Boy, The Treb Heining Story To be Continued…